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Mexico Marks His Words

World Cup: Team's 1-0 opening victory over Croatia lives up to Aguirre's predictions.

June 04, 2002|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NIIGATA, Japan — Javier Aguirre is not Mexican soccer's answer to Phil Jackson. For one thing, Aguirre has no soul patch. For another, the closest weapon he has to Shaquille O'Neal is a bald goalie named Oscar who is small enough to hide inside Shaq's equipment bag.

But what do you call a coach who gets in the face and under the skin of his opening World Cup opponent, raising Croatian eyebrows as he adds yet another motivational posting to the team bulletin board, and then comes through on game day with a plan cagey enough to make Mexico, for one day at least, big in Japan?

The Yen Master?

Mexico's coach said Croatia was too old. He said Croatia was living on 4-year-old results. He said he knew enough about Croatia to realize his lightly regarded squad had more than a puncher's chance against the 1998 World Cup bronze medalists.

Based on the evidence supplied during Mexico's 1-0 victory at Niigata's Big Swan Stadium on Monday, only two things need be said about Aguirre the provocateur:

* The truth is the best defense.

* When you're right, you're right.

Croatia, looking every bit as spent as Aguirre advertised, got precious little out of the men who energized the semifinal surge of '98, forwards Davor Suker and Alen Boksic. After nearly taking World Cup rookie Croatia to the final four years ago, neither Suker, now 34, nor Boksic, 32, lasted 70 minutes against Mexico. Before they were mercifully pulled in the 64th and 67th minutes, Suker and Boksic had combined for one shot, off-target at that.

Mexico's offense was far from vibrant, indulging Croatia in long-ball practice during a scoreless, tedious first half. Mexico was limited by a depleted midfield, thinned by the suspensions of Jesus Arellano and Joahan Rodriguez. Croatia, however, seemed to lack the will or the inspiration to push forward, spending so much time passing the ball back that Mexico's sizable supporter section filled the stadium with derisive whistling and boos.

The tone of the game had turned so lackluster in the first hour that one fleeting moment of flair, a back-heeled pass by Mexico's Jared Borgetti to Cuauhtemoc Blanco, completely unhinged Croatia--and the match with it.

Borgetti's feed sprang Blanco through the middle of the Croatian defense and he went barreling in head-on toward goal. Scrambling to recover, Croatian defender Boris Zivkovic body-slammed Blanco in the penalty area, sending the Mexican striker flying.

As Blanco crumpled to the grass, referee Jun Lu of China was pointing to the penalty spot. Seconds later, a red card for Zivkovic followed.

In the 60th minute, Blanco converted. Suddenly, Mexico had a goal advantage, and a man advantage. Croatia, already sagging, was facing an uphill climb without the legs and the lungs required for the journey.

"I think the penalty broke the game," Aguirre said. "With 10 players [for Croatia] and one goal, I thought we [could] manage the game. We had to handle the team and we had to play better. It was a crucial moment, the penalty."

Desperate for any kind of spark, Croatia Coach Mirko Jozic quickly moved Suker and Boksic to the bench and replaced them with Daniel Saric and Mario Stanic. Croatian midfielder Zvonimir Soldo, already denied by Mexican keeper Oscar Perez on a 47th-minute header, created another anxious moment, driving a blast from the top of the area in the 65th minute that short-hopped Perez and popped loose before he lunged to gather the ball.

Perez had to work to preserve the victory when, in stoppage time, a long throw-in freed Croatia's Josip Simunic for a point-blank shot that Perez somehow palmed away and onto the side netting.

"The goalkeeper is the man of the match, I think," Aguirre said of Perez. "He made a couple of really good saves."

Aguirre looked almost embarrassed when asked about his earlier critical assessment of Croatia and how 90 minutes in Niigata eventually proved him right.

Aguirre claimed he wasn't intentionally trying to play mind games with Jozic--he was simply playing defense on behalf of his players.

"That's not my game," he said. "I heard what the Croatia coach said about us. At first I was quiet. He said we didn't have creative players in the midfield. That's not my style, but I had to answer.

"I didn't want to play that kind of game. It was a good lesson. That's my first and last time playing like that with the press."

What could any Croatian say, other than what Soldo had to offer?

"Mexico was good. We were not," Soldo said. "That is the problem."

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